The spirit of federalism amidst COVID-19 in Nepal

When Nepal adopted federalism and identified it through its Constitution of 2015, it was expected to stand as a landmark and work better for the lives of the people as the government had claimed that it would reach every nook and corner of the country. However, despite attempts and huge expectations, its implementation has been severely lacking and has further faced an additional vulnerability amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic.

In the woke of the COVID-19 pandemic and its ever-increasing number of positive cases every day, Nepal has been exposed to a kind of uncertainty like never before. A nationwide lockdown brought into effect since 24 March 2020 and a sudden re-implementation of the same since 14 August 2020, coupled with the lack of contingency plans to work on smoothening supply chains as well as consumption, has inflicted a hit on the nation’s economic climate.

In an economy that was already crippling due to lack of investment-friendly environment and weak capital spending before the pandemic, the lockdown and subsequent halt of economic activities have only worsened the situation, especially in the second half of the fiscal year- a period when a majority of economic activities occur.

To tackle this crisis, both central and local response is required. Among the three tiers of the government, local governments have remained as an important point of public service delivery and governance at the community level. This suggests that many aspects of an effective response such as rapid testing, contact-tracing, quarantine holding centers, and others must be implemented at the local level as they are the closest to community life. Although local governments were and still are willing to contribute to curbing the spread of the virus through these activities, they lack the necessary capacity to do so effectively. In addition to this, they rely on federal funds to carry out these activities given their limited revenue base and administration capacity. But, in response, the federal governments have not adequately partnered with both provincial and local governments.

The local governments reveal issues and inequities with local funding. They reportedly lack adequate funds. Public health is considered a shared responsibility across all governmental spheres in Nepal, but primary healthcare and sanitation fall exclusively under local governments’ shoulders. However, local levels are faced with issues of understaffing, underfunding, and mismanagement. As a result, a survey showed that 80 percent of the local governments’ available funds for tackling COVID-19 were coming from the reallocation of their own budgets. The local governments had spent 1.9 percent of their annual budget on COVID-19 according to the same survey.

Further, even worse than the situation of lack of funding is a mismatch in the amount of local funding available. According to provincial-level officials across seven provinces and elected chiefs and deputies across 115 local governments who were part of a survey conducted prior to June 2020, average funding of NPR 8.3 million per locality (amounting to USD 69,500) was available. This amount ranged from NPR 60 to NPR 504 per person across local governments. This funding was enough to provide four surgical masks to one resident at the low end, and rapid diagnostic tests for 52 percent of the population were possible at the high end. But, in the Terai areas near the Indian border, the government was faced with twin emergencies of COVID-19 and floods, which resulted in the exhaustion of much of the funds on flood relief and little to nothing left for COVID-19.

Amidst these situations, the coordination among the three tiers of the government remains messy. Even though the federal and provincial governments have passed many decisions, the failure to immediately implement them has caused dissatisfaction among local governments. For instance, a decision to establish a PCR testing facility was passed in Nepalgunj but not implemented, resulting in difficulty in functioning and lack of clarity.

Half-hearted approach

The government seems to be well aware of the dangerously precarious situation it is in. But, fortunately, an impressive network of private hospitals and medical schools spread across the country due to the implementation of free-market policies in a brief stint of three years (1992-95), has acted as a cushion for the government to fall back on. At such an overwhelming time now, the government is still toying with a half-hearted approach towards utilizing the readily available infrastructure, manpower, and facilities that are in private hands instead of capacitating the local governments by arranging proper healthcare system/ health experts in the primary healthcare systems and by arranging a proper ‘disaster management information system’ instead of having to make do with a paper-based record system for data management. These things are necessary to consider because, for instance, in absence of a proper database system, the whole system becomes faulty and is plagued with duplication of information, redundancies and basically provides an outlook that disregards the very foundation of federalism.

Further instances such as reluctance of staffs subject to position adjustments and transfers to provincial and local levels because of the remoteness of duty stations, perceived lack of opportunities for further career enhancement, and the difficulty of adjusting in rural areas with limited space and equipment pose a great threat and direct significance to failing federal management system of the government. Because of these reasons, the possibility of a more dynamic form of local governance still remains severely limited.

Such a narrow perspective might be at the heart of the lack of success that the corrective measures have been facing at the local levels. It also serves as a glaring reminder that elected members of the government have to rethink their management system. Therefore, two major lessons that can be drawn from this half-hearted approach are the specificity of interventions and the empowerment of officials in the local government offices.

Nepal can only achieve its ambitious growth targets while controlling the spread of the virus by enhancing competitiveness at all levels of the government and instilling directional thinking.

Parting thoughts

The lockdown has protracted for months now, and the economy has taken a hit. The daily identification rate of individuals affected with COVID-19, which was very low around mid-May, has increased to more than 400 in a 24-hour window in Kathmandu valley alone as of early August. With infections on such a steep rise and further anticipation of even more in the coming days, accompanied with the hope of a turnaround in the political leadership of Nepal torn down, citizens are clearly not very optimistic about the foreseeable future. The local governments are thus, likely to face additional challenges in management in light of the same problems.

Given the enormity of this situation, a well-coordinated and synchronized effort across various levels of the government is of urgent need.

Local governments are best placed to help curb the spread of the virus in the communities if they are given the resources, technical support, and clear guidelines. But instead, the decision-making authorities of the local levels are being infringed upon by the federal government due to the lack of support from the federal government and their fully centralized control of procurement and order, and half-hearted approach in other areas. This clearly goes against the spirit of federalism and will undoubtedly result in a much larger kill than COVID-19 itself.

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